Chief Maquinna, gatekeeper of the Pacific Northwest
How a young west coast chief used Indigenous diplomacy to avert a fur trade war. (360 Video)
British explorer Captain Cook went looking (like so many Europeans before and after him) for the Northwest Passage. He ran headlong into a thriving trade and business culture on the west coast, overseen by young Nuu-chah-nulth Chief Maquinna. The two men's encounter would forever change trans-Pacific trade and teach the European empire a lesson in diplomacy they've managed to forget many times over.
- 360 Video: When a British ship lands in Nootka Sound, Chief Maquinna knows that the world has come to call. (YouTube)
Chief Maquinna: Master of trade, diplomacy and all-around people person
Accounts of Maquinna frame him as a powerful young leader. As chief of the Nuu-cha-nulth of Nootka Sound, he grew the wealth of his people, emerging as a shrewd and respected negotiator with European fur traders.
Maquinna was primarily responsible for dividing the resources of the 'hoopukunum' (a concept similar to the British idea of Crown land). A chief only maintained his chiefdom by the food and gifts he gave to his people. Among the Nuu-chah-nulth, negotiation was of primary importance. They even had an official greeter and PR director (Kinnecummets in Maquinna's time), who did everything from welcome visiting naval officers to dazzle them with a fire breathing display during a meal.
Maquinna grew in influence and power largely through interpersonal relations. This included the local Indigenous custom of potlatching: gift-giving feasts during which the host demonstrated his importance by giving away gifts and food (or sometimes straight-up destroying them). As more Europeans visited, Maquinna began to study European languages, eventually acting as a sort of middleman between the British and Spanish over trading affairs.
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Captain Cook arrives at Nootka Sound
Captain Cook made multiple globe-spanning voyages — on his third, he was out to find the fabled Northwest Passage, an imagined sea shortcut to facilitate trade between Europe and Asia. In 1778, Cook and crew sailed north from Hawaii to Nootka Sound on what is now Vancouver Island. There, he anchored near Yuquot, the summer residence of the Nuu-chah-nulth people for the past 9,000-odd years.
The central role of negotiation and interpersonal relations in Nuu-chah-nulth meant that Cook and his crew had a very convivial first encounter with Maquinna — the Europeans took the liberty of renaming Nootka Sound "Friendly Cove." But they also found Maquinna a shrewder bargainer than the Hawaiians. Though Maquinna was willing to trade for iron tools, guns and sailcloth, he also knew the art of the deal (and the value of his goods).
The Nuu-chah-nulth's bartering chip: sea otter pelts — a new kind of fur the British seamen had never seen before.
Sea otter fur becomes all the rage in China
Captain Cook never lived long enough to realize the otter fur's value. On the way back across the Pacific, he was killed after a series of tense encounters in Hawaii, a place he'd had once been welcomed. Cook's crew, however, did make it to China, where they were surprised to find the exorbitant price merchants were willing to pay for the otter fur. Some historians suggest the fur was sold at 1800% profit in China (though it's uncertain whether that figure accounts for expenses).
Once accounts of Cook's voyage were published, there was a virtual rush for this furry gold — and in Nootka Sound, all of it went through Maquinna. British and Spanish ships traded European goods to the Nuu-chah-nulth for otter pelts, then traveled to China to trade for tea, silks, and porcelain.
Maquinna uses traditional Indigenous diplomacy to stave off trade war
In 1789, Spain seized British ships, claiming ownership over all sea otter trade and all the Indigenous land on America's west coast. The British threatened to retaliate with their superior navy.
The fur trade of the late 18th century was built on Indigenous principles of trust and discussion and meetings and relationships.
Maquinna's role was central in easing tensions between the European powers during this "Nootka Crisis." Even after his close friend and advisor (possibly even son-in-law) Callicum was killed by the Spanish, Maquinna kept a cool head.
The young chief embarked on consensus building. He taught himself English and Spanish, and brought together Spain's Captain Juan Francisco de la Bodega and Britain's Captain George Vancouver to negotiate an agreement that would avert war.
While Maquinna was skilled at peacemaking, he was not averse shows of strength — one doesn't stay chief over 30 years without some backbone. When British ship the Boston tried to take furs by force, Maquinna and his warriors killed the entire crew of the ship, save one blacksmith, who became Maquinna's slave. (The slave, John Jewitt, provided the most extensive primary written accounts of Maquinna.)
Too much of a good thing?
After a series of agreements (the Nootka Convention), both European powers declared neither would form a permanent settlement in the regions, but ships from either country could visit to trade with Maquinna's otter hunters. (Obviously, Europe didn't abide by this convention for too long.)
This new European wealth had some devastating effects on Nootka Sound. By the 1810s, the sea otter population had been so depleted that the trade itself became impossible. (Not-fun fact: sea otters remain an at-risk species.) And while the Nuu-chah-nulth saw great increases in personal wealth, the intensification of the otter hunt also led to increased warfare and potlatching as Maquinna jockeyed for more territory.
Ironically, the Canadian government banned the practice of potlatching in 1884, noting it was 'wasteful,' and 'contrary to civilized values.' This must have come as quite a surprise to Indigenous people or anyone who has seen capitalism in action.
The Nuu-chah-nulth today
Since the tumultuous time of the sea otter trade, the Nuu-chah-nulth have continued to protect Nootka Sound and the surrounding areas. The Nuu-chah-nulth were heavily involved in the protests and blockades to prevent logging in Clayoquot Sound in the 1990s. Since 1974, they've run Ha-Shilth-Sa, Canada's oldest First Nations newspaper. Today Yuquot is home to camping facilities and is sourcing funds to develop a Cultural and Interpretive Site.
The fur trade of the late 18th century was built on Indigenous principles of trust and discussion and meetings and relationships. Maquinna and the Nuu-chah-nulth displayed the kind of interest in mediation and the communal good that is often seen as intrinsic to Canada's national identity.